Christmas or Bust

Christmas, Yom Kippur, U-Haul, Terra Haute, IN

Try mixing these four elements in a bag and come up with a story. It’s true, that seemingly unrelated events scattered across the globe can funnel into one life changing event. This is the old butterfly effect. If a butterfly flaps its’ wings in China does it cause a breeze in California? December 1973 must have witnessed the largest flock of butterfly wing flapping in history because their wind hit hard in eastern Kentucky.

Christmas

The first semester of seminary life was coming to an end. Along with my fellow Nebraska seminarians I was looking forward to Christmas vacation. This was the first extended time away from home for most of us and as you can imagine, the desire for a Christmas homecoming was strong. Each person was responsible for finding their own way home for vacation. I was blessed in many ways while in the seminary. One such way was by kind people from the parish along with a few other benefactors who supplied me with enough cash to fly home for Christmas. My reservation were set and I was to fly out of the Cincinnati airport on the last day of classes.

Yom Kippur

October 6, 1973 Syria and Egypt launched an attack on Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. This moment in the history of the Arab and Israeli conflicts intensified the already pressured oil prices. Gas prices began to soar as the oil embargo squeezed the supply to drips in the United States.

You didn’t know you were going to get a history lesson through all of this did you?

Back to Christmas

With my airline reservations set, the end of the semester with the first round of finals is all I had to worry about.

Seminary life tended to isolate you. You didn’t have ready access to newspaper, TV and of course, there was no internet. Most of us were not aware of what was happening outside the walls; the gas prices were rising faster than the December temperatures were dropping. Gas stations were closing all around the states and people were worrying how they were ever going to be able to drive to work.

We didn’t realize until travel plans were canceled the impact the events of October 6 would have on this small group of Nebraskans wanting to get home from Kentucky. One by one bus tickets were voided and plane routes scrapped. Finally, I received the call that my flight, which was only days away, was cancelled.

When the dust settled, there was not one Nebraska seminarian that had a ride home for the holidays. Twelve men ranging in ages from eighteen to twenty-two were stuck and none of us felt like spending Christmas in Kentucky.

Enter the bright idea!

Someone came up with the clever idea of renting a van. This made all the sense in the world. We would pool our resources and cut back on luggage. There was little doubt we could do it. As a group we dispatched the over twenty-on year old guys to rent our van while the rest of us stayed behind completing final exams and packing for the trip. The building slowly started to empty as other students finished exams and packed up to head home.

By mid-day only ten Nebraskans were left in the building; two were off searching for a van.

U-Haul

The two oldest seminarians returned with our ride, proud of their accomplishment. Our ride home was a U-Haul box truck. Our assigned negotiators explained that this was “a take it or leave it deal.” All other forms of traditional transportation was either on the road or non-existent.

On a snowy Kentucky afternoon (sounds like an Elvis song) ten men, luggage and food packed by the nuns in the kitchen, climbed in the back of the truck. The two older guys of course had the up-front cab. It was only when the door closed down on us, that we realized we would be making the almost thousand mile trip, in…total…darkness. With the gate closed, you could not see your hand in front of your face. We might as well have been dropped into a black hole of time and space.

With luggage as cushions and head props, we started down the highway like blind men at the mercy of their guide dogs. We felt the sway of the truck as it hit icy sections of the road. We would collectively slide towards the cab of the truck on sudden stops and then back to the tailgate as the drivers accelerated. The drivers seemed to ignore the effects of their actions on the living cargo behind them.

As you can imagine a variety of stories, jokes and comments flew with ease in the darkness. Also, there numerous exchange of gases which no one would ever claim or was it even necessary to do so. The air inside became a mixture of body odor, dirty laundry traveling home for mothers to work their magic on and Murphy’s smelly feet which no one had trouble identifying.

Terra Haute, IN

The farther west on Interstate 70 we traveled the colder it was getting inside the truck and the more slips we could feel as the truck plowed through a now snow covered interstate. More than once the truck came to a stop as holiday traffic combined with the snow storm formed mile long traffic jams. Finally relief came with the first gas stop just outside of Terra Haute, IN.

We could feel the truck pulling up an incline then slide back. Another run was made at the same slope with the same effect. After the last attempt, the tailgate was flung up. Much to the surprise of two senior citizens in the car directly behind the truck, ten bleary eyed and wrinkled men jumped out of the back of the truck. We must have looked like a band of escapees from the local pen.

Ten men put their shoulders to the back of the truck and we pushed it up the hill.

OH, I failed to mention, the temperature was now down to fourteen.

When we looked around after our pushing detail, we found ourselves in a superb truck stop. Amber lights combined with the multicolored lights on countless idling diesels filled the air with an illuminated fog of light and sound. It looked like a mecca of warmth and salvation.

We must have looked desperate because as we entered the truck stop restaurant it seemed as if they had a table waiting for us. In a back corner we sat around a massive round table fit for Arthur and his Knights.

The leader of our band ordered the same plate of food for everyone, which is what you do when you have been living in a community. Choices are taken from you and accept what is given to you. This probably also confirmed the escapee impression.

Our bodies warmed and our bellies full we reluctantly climbed back in the truck. I think a few considered walking from this point but we convinced them this was just the claustrophobia over taking their common sense.

Neither the road conditions nor the weather improved as we drove west.

Somewhere outside of St. Louis we hit another traffic jam. By this time the sun was high overhead. The moisture from our breath had unexpectedly been forming icicles on the ceiling of our box. They must have been hanging like stalactites on a cave roof. As the sun warmed the stationary U-Haul, the ice started to melt dripping on us like rain. After repeated banging on the wall next to the cab, one of the front seat passengers came to our rescue. As the gate opened, we were blinded by a scene that looked like they took a wrong turn and we were on the Arctic continent.

Once our eyes focused, we could see a line of snowbound traffic for miles behind us and a line just as long ahead. On both sides of the road were jackknifed trucks and ditched cars. One old grizzly trucker was talking to our driver and sharing what he knew about the road ahead.

“I think you boys have reached the end of your ride until they can clear the interstate. There is a hill up the road that is solid ice. Trucks a trying to take a run at it and ending up sliding backwards.”

I can’t remember how long we sat there or how cold it really was but I can tell you it was long enough to freeze a jug of apple cider and to send the sun lower in the western sky.  When we finally started to move we could have walked faster to St. Louis than were rolling.

Sometime after midnight, a day and half after we left Kentucky the trip for the two of us from Falls City came to an end. We were lucky enough to be the first stop. The others had another two hours to Lincoln traveling on a snow covered two lane highway. The last one to bring this fiasco to an end was one of the two adult drivers. He parked the truck in his driveway and I am sure, crawled to a warm homecoming.

The next day we checked on one another to make sure we all woke up with no body parts requiring amputation from frostbite. There were no casualties except for the truck. When the driver went to return the truck to the rental it wouldn’t move from his driveway. The transmission had locked. Further inspection revealed…there was barely any fluid remaining in the transmission.

I guess God wanted us all home for Christmas.

It was all part of growing up.

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